The practice of stillness is an essential element of Orthodox life. It is also one of the least prized and most difficult. Sometimes I feel like I’m getting rather curmudgeonly, because when I read the news, even the written word seems to be devolving into a contest of who can be the loudest. Things have been moving in this direction for years and the trend seems to spike in election years. There are many ways in which this can affect us. One way is that we could get caught up and be manipulated into an adrenaline rush or emotional high. Another is that the doomsday rhetoric could find its way into our hearts and minds and lead to anxiety. Or the state of things can lead us into despair and lethargy.
In the middle of this, we hear God calling to us from the psalms: Be still and know that I am God (Ps. 46:10). This was also the title of a presentation I saw a few years ago, subtitled “The message of St. Gregory Palamas for the world today.” I think it would be instructive to take a brief look at St. Gregory’s life and some of his teachings. St. Gregory grew up at the Constantinopolitan court, but was attracted by the monastic life, rather than the court. Around age 24, he went to Mt. Athos, where he learned both the practice and theology of the Jesus prayer and hesychasm (the practice of stillness). He would gladly have lived the rest of his life on the holy mountain, but he was called first to defend the practice of hesychasm against various attacks, then to pastor the city of Thessaloniki as its archbishop.
At that time, Thessaloniki was torn apart by conflict. St. Gregory was not even able to enter the city for three and a half years after his election. He began his first homily after his arrival by stressing the unity of all his hearers in the sight of God:
“We are all brethren in that we have one Creator and Lord, who is Father to us all. That brotherhood we share with animals and inanimate nature. We are also brethren one to another as descendants of one earthly father, Adam, and the only creatures made in God’s image.”
He then goes on to diagnose the spiritual illness which led to the conflict:
“We have one baptism, brethren, for regeneration and divine birth, one faith, one hope, one God, who is above all and through all and in us all. In His love, He gathers us together to Himself and makes us members of one another and of Himself. But by the devil’s cooperation hatred towards one another entered in, forcing out love, or rather, it entered in not once but many times, breaking up the unity that was ours in our love for one another and for God. This hatred [...] makes fellow-countrymen into antagonists and renders our city like one taken by the enemy.”
"But do not feel annoyed when you hear these things. I do not say them to reproach you, but so that now you recognize the sickness, being sober and free from it, you may search out the reason you succumbed to it, long to be healed and make haste to attain and keep this healing, which is God’s gift. [...] In your case the sin you all share put love to flight and made you enemies of one another. For how else did you lose the common bond of love towards God and each other, except that your minds were enamoured of sin? [...] I shall give you an illustration of how this passion works. Our soul is like a lamp with good works for oil. Instead of a wick it holds love, upon which rests, not light, but the grace of the divine Spirit. When the oil of good works fails, the wick of love in the soul must grow cold. So the light of God’s care and love departs from those who leave virtue and put love to flight”
St. Gregory continues with a cure:
“Turn back now to the way of Christ’s gospel and hold to it firmly, that your unity with one another may be ever flourishing and unbroken. Then the Lord with turn back to you and rest upon you in peace and the grace of the divine Spirit. [...] Be reconciled with God. [...] Do not take account of evil, do not with to repay evil with evil, but overcome evil with good. Embrace love to one another so you may attain the love that comes from God and show love towards Him.”
He ends with an exhortation:
“Brethren, obey me as I come to you now and preach peace above all and towards all, according to the Lord’s commandment. Share in the work by forgiving one another, if anyone has cause for complaint against another, as Christ forgave us, that you may become sons of peace, sons of God. He is your peace “who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition” (Eph. 2:14).
St. Gregory was only in his see for about eight years, but he was indeed able to bring healing. In that brief time he came to be called the “glory of Thessaloniki” as we sing in his apolytikion. And he still has something to say to us, living in the twenty first century.
The call of the psalm to us to be still seems to fly in the face of the wisdom of the day. Yet, For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.(1 Cor. 3:19). And we can see from the life of St. Gregory that the call to be still is not a call to inaction. It is rather, a re-ordering of our priorities, so that we seek first the Kingdom, without which everything else is but a flower that withers and a dream that perishes.
With love in Christ,